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Fierce, Barbarous, Unbiddable: Perceptions of Norse-Gael Identity in Orkney-Caithness c.1000-1400

Orkney Islands - Scotland

Fierce, Barbarous, Unbiddable: Perceptions of Norse-Gael Identity in Orkney-Caithness c.1000-1400

By Dylan Pierre Colin Howarth

MA Thesis, University of Oslo, 2017

Orkney Islands - Scotland
Orkney Islands – Scotland

Abstract: The purpose of this Master’s thesis is to analyse the perceptions of Orcadian Norse-Gael identity as they are found in medieval written sources. This thesis attempts to demonstrate that Norsemen – both Icelandic or Norwegian – and Scots (and to a lesser extent the Irish and English), understood Norse-Gael identity in Orkney and Caithness to be distinct, and that both groups attributed various characteristics to the Orcadians.

This thesis also seeks to gain an understanding of Orcadian self-perception. An examination of personal names and familial ties, combined with an analysis of political developments in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries can help shed some light as to how the Orcadians understood and perceived their own identity.

The main source material used in this study consists of Icelandic sagas (Orkneyinga Saga, Njáls Saga, Laxdæla Saga, Magnúss Saga Skemmri, Fóstbrœðra Saga, Sverris Saga, Hákonar Saga Hákonarsonar) and Scottish chronicles (Gesta Annalia, The Chronicle of Melrose, Chronica Gentis Scotorum). The first chapter of this thesis focuses on depictions of Orcadians as pirates, criminals and rebels. The second chapter explores themes related to religion, such as the retention of pagan practices after the Orcadians’ conversion to Christianity, the sanctification of Magnús Erlendsson, and the thirteenth-century attacks on two Scottish bishops of Caithness. The third chapter examines the origin myth found in Orkneyinga Saga, as well as the authorship and purpose of the saga. The final chapter looks at personal names and familial ties, ascribed characteristics, and Orcadian folklore.


The findings of this thesis are that medieval Norsemen and Scots were aware of the Orcadian indentity’s distinctness, and ascribed a certain number of traits to the Orcadians. The chief attributes that were assigned to the Orcadians were backwardness and unruliness. These perceptions were partly products of the Orcadians’ ‘otherness’, as well as of certain ‘real’ characteristics possessed by the Orcadian Norse-Gaels and their society, such as their practice of piracy and their rebellious tendencies.

Click here to read this thesis from the University of Oslo

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